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Forsyth County artists and creatives share what 2020 taught them

Forsyth County artists and creatives share what 2020 taught them


The year 2020 is sure to go down in the history books as an extraordinary year, particularly because of the worldwide pandemic.

As the old year comes to a close, people sometimes look back, reflecting on what was or might have been before moving into the new year.

Several artists and creatives in Forsyth County recently commented on this question: What did you learn in 2020?

'Miss Alice'

Alice “Miss Alice” Cunningham, a storyteller and owner of Alice’s Place, the Tea Party Place in Winston-Salem, had to reinvent herself by coming up with other work to make a living in 2020. It helped that she has done other things over the years in addition to tea parties, including interior design.

“‘One day at a time’ is a phrase I have heard for ages, but this year it has really become significant to me,” Cunningham said. “I’ve learned not to look too far down the road and become overwhelmed by life’s uncertainties. I try to remember that the Lord is in charge.

"I remind myself: Don’t complain. Instead, make a list of all the things I have to be grateful for — excellent health, both physical and mental, good friends and family to talk to when the social part of me gets weary of so much time alone, the safety of a warm home, enough to eat, the gift of eyesight, the ability to read and the companionship of good books.

“I’ve learned to appreciate alternate ways to make a living when my tea party business and storytelling have not been possible during the pandemic. I’ve made draperies, done some reupholstery, alterations and taken care of a lady with dementia so her husband could have some time off. It’s a good thing I enjoy variety!

“At the beginning of the year 2020, I thought. ‘Well, 20/20 is great when speaking of one’s eyesight. I hope it will be a great year as well.’ It has certainly been different from what I expected, but I do believe I have learned how to appreciate each day a lot more now.”

Speak N Eye

Aaron Brookshire, aka Emceein’ Eye, and his brother Joshua Brookshire, aka Unspeakable, are the hip-hop duo Speak N Eye, based in Winston-Salem.

Aaron Brookshire said he got through 2020 with the help of his family, friends, fans, community, a network of artists, their church fellowship and everyone who works for the record label Cold Rhymes.

“It's been a rough ride," Aaron Brookshire said. "Losing our mother has had an awful effect on myself and my brother, and I don't think I could have made it out of the mud myself without my family and friends and everything I mentioned. We still have an unending journey ourselves, and I’m beyond grateful to know people care about not just us, but each other, during these uncertain and wild times.”

He said he has learned a lot of things.

“What comes to mind most when thinking about 2020, is that scene in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum famously says "Uhh ... life finds a way" when talking about chaos theory and the scientists morally questionable act of cloning dinosaurs only as females.

“Necessary social distancing and capacity limits have mostly shut down live performing and intimate sweaty nights in our community have now become — hopefully not — ancient history. However, artists and musicians have found a way to deliver the goods to fans and friends no matter the circumstances. Digital streaming, sales and views have never been higher, and in some odd way, technology has helped carry a lot of us through this year in a very pleasing way, retrospectively. I can’t say it’s what any of us wish, but it still surprises me that me and my brother sold more of our band's albums this year than we ever have in the last 10 years combined. To be optimistic, I think that artists of all kinds have found a way to turn a negative into a positive."

For 2021, he is hoping and wishing for major shifts and changes in some social movements and that people become more aware of the power they hold.

“The mind is like a diamond, and it seems more and more clear to me these days that people are not aware of the tool they possess between their shoulders," he said. "My other hope is that the vaccine will be effective and be quickly distributed to the world so that we can hopefully, get back to living again.

“I also hope that more people start to be more mindful and thinking about how they cannot just tolerate their neighbor and fellow citizens but come to care and love them as they would themselves.”

Joshua Brookshire said he survived the year “through finding love for myself, by others being open with their love and honesty for the world around us ...”

“I learned that during even the deepest and darkest times of suffering and need, people that are truly involved in this community have stepped up,” he said. “Much of the narrative in the media, is of a suffering life for everyone. However, if we all connect together, there is serious potential for change in the things that affect us materially. There is nothing stronger than the will of the human spirit and its capacity for love.”

He said there are “very slim chances of hope” in the new year.

“Because everything we've seen so far has led us to believe that the government will abandon its least useful members of society," he said. "Those who are most vulnerable, amongst us, are facing challenges more difficult than anything they had felt in the last two decades. We need to come together, support each other materially. Only through actual and tangible actions can people feel like they are supported by the community around them.”

Nigel D. Alston

Nigel D. Alston, executive director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, said he navigated 2020 “by staying positive, minimizing the circle of contact, following the guidelines for minimizing risks, and being aware of an ever-changing environment.”

“I learned — actually reinforced — that there are a lot of people who don’t know about, or recognize, the stark differences in class, culture and the impact of privilege,” Alston said. “That some are more than willing to place the common good for all above everything else, while others assert their right to bad behavior that makes it more difficult for us all.

“This year has been one of revelations: health and educational disparities highlighted, leadership or lack thereof during this ongoing pandemic, and the dissemination of misinformation.

“It has also revealed that we (N.C. Black Repertory Company) are more creative, flexible and moving forward in a challenging year. We continue to live our mission, as change has accelerated doing things differently.

“I am reminded that we all need support now more than ever. To be kind, considerate, loving and connected to see each other through.”

His hope and expectations for 2021 are “that we as a community (nation) work together, rather than against one another, to ensure we emerge in a better position to meet the challenges ahead.

Sunsuk Lee

Sunsuk Lee makes functional and sculptural pottery and often incorporates basketry, painting or found objects.

Though she is not certain of the reason, she said she experienced grief in 2020 without losing anyone close. Because of the pandemic, most of the art/craft shows she usually participated in were canceled.

“It has been an interesting year with a bit of motivation issues at least in the first half of the year,” Lee said. “These (things) are what I learned while trying to overcome some issues.

“1. Quantity becomes quality. Instead of just thinking about making something, I decided to handle clay everyday even if it was just preparing clay to make something. Once I started, I couldn't just stop at preparation, but actually made things and kept at it. At some point, I realized I am becoming more comfortable with processes, with which I had difficulties before. Also, I feel better about pieces I make and do less rework of the ones I had made. It is such a cliche, but practice makes perfect. Although, there is no such thing as perfect, and if there is, it would be boring.

"2. Don’t wait for the 'right time.' Just do it. Quite a few ideas are lost or forgotten due to hesitation or laziness. I am trying new ideas more this year, as long as I can run the whole idea through loosely. Without overthinking and obsessing over the big picture, I am convinced that now is the right time for most things and ideas. Personally, as a result of not waiting, my pallet has more colors and my pots are more interesting. I did say personally, didn’t I?

She also has wishes for 2021.

“I hope I am as excited or more about making pottery and finding ways to be creative," Lee said. "I hope I overcome shyness or reluctance and find ways to attain more exposure for pieces I make. Most importantly, I hope we find ways to overcome the pandemic and sense of grief and loss and be joyous and much happier.”

Franklin Vagnone

Franklin Vagnone, president and chief executive of Old Salem Museums & Gardens/Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts didn’t anticipate 2020 to turn out quite the way it did for Old Salem/MESDA.

“Following our transformative past four years, I fully expected that 2020 would take us to the next level of functionality and visitor engagement,” Vagnone said. “In fact, this has been achieved, but not in the way that I expected.”

This is what he learned:

“The greatest validation for me has been to see the power of a collaborative leadership model. In our case, the 21-person Leadership Team at Old Salem/MESDA ... Before we closed our operations, we were deep into data-collection and analysis relative to the coming COVID-19 pandemic. The truth is, we are all historians, and the first thing we did was to investigate how previous pandemics proceeded. That basic understanding formed our foundational conclusions. It is because of this collaborative form of leadership that we were able to quickly transform our demonstration gardens into gardens for local food banks — over 3,000 pounds donated to date — and switched our bakery toward crafting bread for local families in need — over 10,000 loaves of bread donated to date.

“The next most important lesson has been to see the positive results of our transparent and fully public communication strategy. From the start of this year, our goal has been to keep our community informed and aware of the complexities of our decision-making. This has kept our staff safe and our future visitors with reasonable expectations.”

Looking ahead to the new year, he expects there are still “12 months of equalizing before we get back to being open in a traditional manner.”

“However, that does not mean that we simply go stagnant," Vagnone said. "My expectation is to step up to the next level of operations and community engagement. I am aware that I may not fully understand what that will look like or mean in terms of the operations at Old Salem/MESDA, but I will remain flexible and open to where 2021 takes us.

“I am an architectural designer and I know that the buildings that are designed to flex and move during catastrophic environmental disasters, are the buildings that remain standing. Old Salem and MESDA is now built with flexible operations — we will be here when all of this is over — better and more focused. I have no doubt.”



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